Keep Your Head Up (Please)


A CEO of a large company once told me “It’s easy to be a good manager when things are going well.” There’s a fairly large nugget of wisdom in this. We praise people who are successful, laud their leadership skills and marvel at how they’ve brought out the best in their teams. However, we’re rarely privy to their moments of doubt, to the times when things weren’t going swimmingly, when it wasn’t so easy to captain a ship that was being tossed about on stormy seas. Being a good manager in times of tumult sucks, and it’s really hard. Ironically, when the brown stuff hits the fan, that’s when rising to the occasion matters most.

Try replacing the word “manager” with “thinker.” Think of yourself as a manager of your own thoughts. When things are going well, there’s clarity. There’s time for reflection and dialogue, and even creativity. When things get difficult, however, we tend to resort to knee-jerk reactions, to wishful thinking and narrow-mindedness. We throw around words like “rational” and “logical”, as if the mere mention of them implies that they’re actually being used. When it counts the most, when we stand to gain the most from being effective “managers”, we flake out.

My friends, there is a great deal of brown stuff in mid-flight at the moment. The world is screaming for a bit of rational thinking, for some level-headedness, and rather than stepping up as managers, we’re giving our notice and turning in our keys. If it was ever easy to be in charge of one’s thoughts (maybe it never was), it ain’t anymore. While I’d never presume to tell anyone what to think (kind of defeats the purpose, really), there are a few trusty guidelines on how to think:

  • You don’t get to decide something is true (or false) just because you want it to be. This one is a crusty little pill to swallow, as it often means we have to give up something we like, something we’re comfortable with. It’s fine that there are different definitions of truth itself (so meta), but slapping it on as a label should occur only after careful scrutiny.
  • You don’t get to declare someone else’s ideas as dumb or silly or wrong just because they’re “other”. Every single person on the planet is “other” (thanks, Sartre), and we are “other” to everyone else. You stick your fingers in your ears while others are talking, you miss out on a lot.
  • Famous and popular do not equal smart…or useful…or right. This applies to ideas just as much as it does to celebrities or fads. Humans like stupid things sometimes. Big groups of humans like stupid things sometimes. Case in point: Tamagotchi. ‘Nuff said.
  • Thinking well isn’t something you get to scratch off a to do list. There is no squishy philosophical bean bag chair into which you can wedge yourself for the rest of your life. Good thinking is like one of those posture-correcting, metal folding jobbies they use in band class. It’s uncomfortable, and it demands that you stay alert and squirming. But at least you know you’re sitting up properly.
  • There is no winner in an argument. We need to stop thinking about crushing our opponents and start thinking about putting our minds together to figure stuff out. If you’re feeling competitive, play a round of Chubby Bunny with mini-marshmallows, or go bowling.
  • If you’re wrong, admit you’re wrong. Contrary to popular opinion, the human mind is fallible (well, duh). There’s no shame in realizing that your idea isn’t going to work. Stubbornly clinging to an idea with more holes in it than Swiss cheese is guaranteed to make you look pretty foolish.
  • Start teaching people to be better “managers” when they’re really small. Kids pee their pants more often than adults, and they have questionable taste in snack foods, but they’re not just cute little morons. Count the number of dorky plastic toys your kid has, double it, and that’s how many big ideas your kid has swimming around in their head at any given moment. They can handle them.

Okay, I’ll admit that there’s probably never a time when being this kind of manager is easy. Human lives are complex and often difficult. That’s what we get for climbing out of the ooze and becoming sentient. There are, however, perceivable peaks and valleys in our collective happiness, and I think we may be facing the latter at the moment. If you’ve never considered yourself to be management material when it comes to your own thoughts, well, congratulations, you’ve just been promoted. If you have, please don’t cash in on your vacation time now. Time to get to work.


It’s a Cold and it’s a Broken Hallelujah

Malcolm Gladwell is right in his analysis of Leonard Cohen’s magnum opus Hallelujah. Its genius lies not in the original composition, but in the fact that it gets just a little bit bigger and richer and more complex with every iteration. Before yesterday, I knew of at least four or five versions, each surprisingly different from the ones that came before. Last night, I heard it performed by Chris Hadfield and Amanda Palmer, as a cap to an evening of talks by hopeful, optimistic innovators. Today, this came through my twitter feed:

Before you roll your eyes and click away from another post about the loss of Leonard Cohen, I should tell you that this isn’t about him, at least not entirely. It kind of also involves last week’s presidential election in the United States. Again, before you roll your eyes and click away from another post about the election, you should know that it isn’t about that either, at least not entirely.

I like Leonard Cohen’s work a lot, but I don’t think anyone could call me an expert on it. Similarly, although I’m interested in the politics of our neighbour to the South, I’m still pretty much a neophyte when it comes to the mechanics and subtleties of their electoral system. What interests me, and what struck me as I watched Kate McKinnon re-envision Hallelujah as Hillary Clinton, is the way the universe often throws such interesting (sometimes mortifying) combinations of things at us at once. As Shakespeare once said, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” There’s the initial shock of it all, the “It’s too much to bear all at once” part, but if one waits and takes a breath, it’s sometimes possible to reflect on why those particular things happened at the same time. What does this particular mix of events have to tell us about life, the universe and everything?

So let’s pretend we’re in Ms. Leask’s grade 12 English class, and we’re analyzing Hallelujah as part of our poetry unit. Well, the biblical references aren’t hard to spot, if you’re at all familiar with the bible. Some of them speak of grace, of pilgrimage, of devotion, in essence, the divine in us. Other lines deal with the dark, the battered, the utter exhaustion of being human. As I said, I’m not a preeminent scholar of Cohen’s work, but I’ve read and listened to enough of it to know that he’s pretty good at presenting this kind of dichotomy. Song of Bernadette speaks of a woman exuding kindness, but who is ignored by those she tries to save. Bird on a Wire describes profound love through instances of frustration and disappointment. Cohen’s verse juggles the divine and beautiful along with the profane and ratty. It’s both honest and cruel, celebratory and cynical. As he himself admits, “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

So why did the universe see fit to take Leonard Cohen away in the same week as the election in the US? Well, whether you saw the results as a victory or a disaster, there seems to be consensus worldwide that many things are broken. Even if you are overjoyed with the new president-elect, you still have to admit that there’s so much work to be done. Is it a coincidence that while the political snow globe begins to settle in the US (or maybe it’s about to be shaken up again, repeatedly), Hallelujah has been playing on heavy rotation in the background? For extra credit, you can take a look at 2016 as a whole, the deaths of great creative and influential minds, political upheaval, the myriad of tragic attacks and shootings…it hasn’t been a year that’s made a lot of sense, now has it?

I like to think that there’s method in the collective madness sometimes. Even if these two events coinciding this week wasn’t part of some cosmic plan (or joke), this strange mash-up can serve as a point of reflection, an opportunity to turn inward and look at the darkness that seems to keep piling up. Maybe, if these two things hadn’t happened, together, neither would have had the same impact, the same opportunities for change and growth. To borrow another image from Cohen, maybe this is just the kind of week that exposes the cracks, the ones through which the light comes in.